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S & H International Opera Review

The Valkyrie Soloists and Orchestra of English National Opera/Alex Ingram. Coliseum, London, Wednesday, May 26th, 2003 (CC)


ENO’s Ring continues to raise eyebrows with The Valkyrie. The production includes some stunning visual moments (the lighting, in particular, is impressive). Yet there are also real transgressions against the musico-dramatic fabric. All of these are unified by a single thread - the point-making is superficial, carrying little or no sense of the eternal (or even long-term) value. And if there is one thing that the composer Richard Wagner is concerned with, from Rhinegold (or earlier, given the last act of Lohengrin), it is the supra-temporal nature of reality. Such reductionism of Wagnerian philosophy to the pretty, petty and clever (in the worst sense of the word ‘clever’) point-making is at best deeply troubling. For those of us who regularly frequent the shrine of Richard Wagner, it represents little short of sacrilege.

The sword in Act 1 emerges from between Sieglinde’s legs, for example. Not a tree in sight (or even a bush, as it goes). Siegmund and Sieglinde are shown graphically indulging in manic rumpy-pumpy at the close of the act. Later, Brünnhilde and Wotan’s farewell is no tearful moment of noble transcendence. Brünnhilde fights with orderlies as if in a mental institution. And just what exactly are Village People doing hanging around the paradescending Valkyries? Very handle-bar moustache - when I read Marc Bridle's review of this production, I confess I did not grasp the reference to ‘gay cartoon iconography’. Going to St Martin’s Lane, all dropped into place.

Voyeurs might rejoice at this Valkyrie (it’s all a bit like dogging, but you pay for it), with incest, both real (Siegmund and Sieglinde) and implied (Brünnhilde and Wotan). Be assured, though, that on a day-to-day level no-one enjoys a bit of base titillation more than myself. But Phyllida should leave sex to Wagner. He knows how to do it.

A confession - I did not read the cast list well enough before I went in (going on-spec and not officially on MusicWeb business, I couldn’t afford the programme). So when Act I came across as well-paced, with salient harmonic shifts and structural arrival points given their due, I was left wondering just what had happened to Paul Daniel, who in the Barbican performances of the Ring could ride slip-shod over Wagner’s pristine musical surfaces. The orchestra, too, sounded in a different league from the Rhinegold I heard here at St Martin’s recently, as the first instalment of this cycle. The intermission gave me the chance to discover that this was the one performance of the run under the baton of Alex Ingram.

Typical of Lloyd’s production is that it began not with Wagner’s magnificent portrayal of hounded flight in a storm, but rather with a loud, hysterical scream. Even knowing it was coming, the sheer musical value of the scurrying cellos and basses was demeaned by this crass gesture, one that will soon be forgotten in the annals of Wagner performance, I hope. Perhaps even writing about it is proliferating its appeal (there’s no publicity like bad publicity to ignite the curious, after all).

Pär Linskog’s Siegmund is generally unchanged from the Barbican performances, except for perhaps a small gain in maturity. But his voice seems uncomfortably cast and strained (although not as much as Kyhle with the Budapest Festival Orchestra recently. Orla Boylan was generally acceptable as Sieglinde, while Clive Bayley as Hunding disappointed in his under-powered account (or so it seemed, sitting so near the ceiling). Hunding should be proud, absurdly sexist (to our eyes these days), brutish and easy to hate. But for all that to happen he needs authority, a facet largely absent here.

The pairing of Robert Hayward’s Wotan and Susan Parry’s Fricka is an interesting one. Hayward lacks the demeanour of a Head God and his voice does not have the depth or tonal variety of, say, a Hotter. His ‘Götternot’ narration went well, however. Ingram’s pacing in the pit helped. In an act which in the wrong hands can seem interminable, everything here seemed gripping from first to last.

So to Brünnhilde in the form of Kathleen Broderick. Broderick has impressed so much in the past that it was a shock to see and hear her sounding tired. The feistiest of Valkyries running low on va-va-voom is a sad sight indeed. And in Act III, this was to prove crucial. Yet much of this Act (after the famous ride/swing) is taken up with father-daughter tension. Hayward proved that he does not have the exaggerated nature of Wotan in him - a head of the gods, yet fatally flawed. The dullness of ‘Der Augens leuchtendes Paar’ was elegant testimony to this. The close, with Brünnhilde, stripped of dignity and ever so alone, seemed curiously shallow.

Disappointing, then. Valkyrie moves from one of the greatest outpourings of sexual love to one of the greatest farewells. The marring of Act I before even a note was played seemed symptomatic of the entire evening. Despite positive moments, one was left with a curiously insubstantial feeling - and the distinct impression that Wagner had been under-sold.

Colin Clarke

 


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